When SEO Attacks!

"If you SEO it, they will come." But what happens if they come and you haven't built anything they'd want to use? Are you building your site for robots or for humans?

Well, it’s been winter down here.  And I mean really winter, with white stuff on the ground and all.  The weather man had been going on for a solid week about a legitimate winter storm that was headed our way, which led to some serious reflection about my wardrobe deficiencies.  Specifically, I need a new coat.

I poked around on eBay, visited the usual men’s stores online (Banana Republic, the Gap, maybe J Crew for good measure) and all the real contenders were based on military field jackets.  So I figured I could save some coin and go the military surplus route.  I fired up the Google, did a quick search, opened up the top 3 results in different tabs, and then starting digging through those sites to investigate some M65 field jackets.

Here’s one of Google’s top 3 matches for my search (sanitized so as not to be incriminating):

Ok, so here’s my field jacket.  It looked somewhat promising, so I scanned around a bit wanting to know more about it.  I Clicked on the image, no enlargement.  Looked around, no other product views.  Fine, I guess I’ll read.

Well, I tried to read.  But what I found was a mass of SEO text designed for robots instead of humans.  So I did what any reasonable person would do when unexpectedly confronted by robots–I ran!  (Well, I closed the tab).

Clearly this company has invested in Search Engine Optimization for their website, and that’s paid off for them by placing it high in Google’s search results.  But the crucial step they missed was creating a comfortable and informative environment that would lead me to purchase their product. They’d gotten me there and immediately scared me away.

So let’s figure out what they did wrong:

1. Text Designed For Robots

SEO text certainly has its place.  And that place is not where reasonable human beings would expect to find language they can easily understand.  When a user looks at the product description area, it’s unsurprising that they’d expect to find a description of that product. Perhaps even one that whets their appetite for the product while providing clarity about what it is and isn’t.  The product description ought to invite and inform, not drive away.  I already know that it’s a “Black Vintage M65 Field Jacket” because I see the product title in bold and because I chose that product on the previous page.  I don’t need to be reminded of that in every sentence.

2. No Image Enlargement

We’re visual creatures.  And seeing something (especially in detail) tells us so much more about that thing than words can–and in a fraction of a second.  Remember that buying things online is a faith-based transaction.  The buyer is taking a leap of faith in trusting that the product you’re selling is just the right thing for them.  They have expectations that they trust will be met by your product.  And they have little picky preferences that sometimes only show up in the slightest details.  The more they know about your product, and the more they can see of your product, the greater chance you have of fulfilling that trust and avoiding dissatisfaction or returns.

3. No Additional Views

Show me the back.  Show me the fabric detail.  Show me how it looks on a model or mannequin with a size I can relate to.  I’d be able to experience all these things in the store, and they’d either lead me to purchase your jacket or they’d highlight some of its deficiencies.  That in-store experience can be replicated online with minimal effort by adding multiple views that will give more of a total sense of your product.

4. Navigation Designed for Robots

So let’s say I made it through the first 3 hurdles they threw me (which I didn’t) and decided that this jacket just wasn’t for me, and that I’d like to see if any of their other jackets might fit my needs.  I’d turn to the product navigation on the left side of the page and I’d hope to see clear, broad starting points that would quickly lead me to other products that suit my needs.  I shouldn’t have to wonder if the other military jackets are in “Clothing” or “Outerwear” or “Military Surplus” or what.  Instead, I’d find a jumble of poorly-spaced text highlighting categories that are designed for SEO not for humans.  Again: SEO text has its place, and its not where reasonable humans would expect to interact with the website.

5. Poorly Designed Checkout

I’ve stayed in enough cheap motels to understand what “starts at” means.  It means that there’s one room in the far corner of the building (with people yelling in the parking lot outside your room all night) that purposely hasn’t been updated (or cleaned) in 30 years so that they can advertise a rate on their sign that will lure people in.  Now I, being a somewhat suspicious person by nature, and having had the aforementioned motel experiences, am going to assume that only the small is $59.95, and that a large could be up to $80.  What’s worse, my suspicions would only be proven wrong after I chose a size, hit continue (which reloads the entire page), scanned back down to the area I was interacting with before, and saw that the price of a large is still just $59.95.  In fact, only 2X and 3X  carry additional charges.  All of this suspicion and frustration could be allayed with clearer wording and a little scripting that would refresh only the purchase area of the page with my selection instead of reloading the whole page.

6. Call To…

News Flash: I’m on your website because I don’t want to call you.  I don’t want to visit your store.  I don’t want to ask you questions.  I just want to sit here in my pajamas with my dog and order your jacket.  If overnight shipping and rush orders are options, standardize them and integrate those options into the checkout.  I’m not going to call you and ask for that.  And I’m sure not going to remember my order number long enough to relay it to you.

So, yeah, I can complain.  It’s not a special skill, but I try.  But rather than just complain, let me show you a few simple things I’d do differently to create a more positive user experience and still retain SEO robustness.

1. Product Description Improvements

Remember that awful prison of text from before?  Check it out now.  For those interested in scanning (and that’s most of us), the important features are easy to find in short and concise bulleted format.  If you decide you want to read the full text, you’re greeted by a much more personal sales pitch.  Note that I’ve maintained a lot of the SEO value of the text, just worked in the keywords in a way that humans can understand.

What We’ve Learned: Use friendly and personal wording in the description paragraph to add value to the product, and short, direct text in the bullets to outline its features or specifications.

2. Image Enlargement

I think most users just try clicking on something to see if it works, but in case you need to read about it there’s the “enlarge” text and icon to make it clear. A little zoom goes a long way.

What We’ve Learned: Its not hard to show users more and give them more of an in-store experience with your product.

3. Multiple Views

I can see the fabric detail now!  And the heavy-duty zipper!  And the thumbnails show me what I’m getting myself into before I click!  Hurrah!

What We’ve Learned: Its not hard to show users more and give them more of an in-store experience with your product.

4. Menu Improvements

It’s hard to reorganize their product navigation without first-hand knowledge of their business, but there are a few pretty universal rules and what’s shown here is at least a good start.  I’ve taken things like “Womens Camouflage Clothing” out of the main navigation, assuming it would appear under “Clothing > Women > Camouflage” and “Camouflage > Women”.  Are you a woman looking for clothes and would entertain the idea of a camouflage thing or two?  Start at “Clothing” and work your way down.  Really just need camouflage everything and happen to be a woman?  Start at “Camouflage” and lord help us all. 

I’ve also taken the products out of alphabetical order and listed them by (what I imagine is) their importance.  This is another easy way to help users get to where they want to go quickly and without a lot of thought.

Consolidating some of the menu items has also allowed me to space out the items so that they’re identified as distinct groups of words and not a giant wad of text.

But where did all that great SEO-enriched content go?!?  It’s in the footer where I don’t have to look at it.  But don’t worry, it’s not lost. A good web developer can help the robots to see all of those glorious words first while keeping them out of the way of your average guy on a couch who just wants a decent jacket.

What We’ve Learned: Everything can’t be at the top.  Use appropriate menu hierarchies with broad top-level categories to help users find what they’re looking for faster.

5. Improved Checkout

Hey, look!  It’s a concrete price!  I’ve also taken the Visa and Mastercard logos out of the sidebar and included them in the purchase are where they are more relevant.  I’m assuming they only take those two cards.  If not, I’d expect them to show all payment methods here (and I’d suggest adding Paypal to the mix).  While it’s not obvious in my mock-up, I’d rely on some scripting so that choosing a size only updates the purchase area instead of reloading the whole page.

What We’ve Learned: Make checkout clear and simple.  Every step of the process and every complication is an invitation for the purchaser to leave the transaction.

6. No More Calling

Sure there are sickos out there that just love talking on the phone, but talking on the phone is no longer a part of the ordering process.  Ideally, hitting “continue” on this page would forward you to a shopping cart page showing this item in your order.  Shopping cart pages are typically pretty bare, and would be a great place to tell the purchaser about combined shipping in hopes they’ll go back and add more products.  Information about turnaround time might also be appropriate on that page (though advertising a turnaround time of up to 7 business days is hardly anything to brag about).  I’d save things like a rush order option for a page where you can show me actual shipping cost and actual estimated delivery times, most likely that would be the payment page.

What We’ve Learned: Save information for the step where it would be appropriate to act on it.  The phone is a nice backup, but don’t rely on it for any part of the checkout process.

Plan for Robots, Design for Humans

So much attention is paid to SEO and “driving traffic”, but what happens once your traffic gets there? Using the Field of Dreams analogy, what happens if they come and you haven’t built anything they’d want to use?

It’s entirely possible that you’re attracting stubborn and determined users who love complications, but let’s face it–you’re not. What you’re attracting is someone’s fleeting curiousity. A whim, a passing idea, an itch that at that very moment they’ve wondered if you can scratch. This is your one chance–and it won’t last long. Your goal is to create a clear and informative environment that’s inviting, will hold their attention, and will assure them that your product is the right one for them.

And it’s not that hard to meet those goals. With just a few minor adjustments in presentation, the same jacket that drove me away within seconds became something I probably would have purchased. It’s not really hard or complicated at all, and ought to be pretty easy for the average web store owner to implement. Yep, I’m pretty sure even my mom could pull this one off.

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